In part two of our mini-series showcasing recently taken photos from Pyongyang, two former residents of the city walk us through some of the less common sites, revealing background information few foreigners may know.
Park Chol Su (alias) and Kim Jun Hyuk (alias), the two former residents who looked over the shots, left in 2012 and 2015 respectively. Park was a former Korean People’s Army officer, while Kim was a former business person in the construction sector.
Photo 1: “10,000 dollar apartments”
That apartment you see is the most modern apartment you will find in Pyongyang.
Park: Hwanggumbol Station! This zone is where I come from. I hadn’t seen that apartment before I left Pyongyang, so they must have built it recently. Wow, some of the floors (of that apartment) even have their own solar panels. One interesting fact about North Korean apartments is that those facing towards the southern direction are almost twice the price of those facing the north. Why? Because you can get enough sunlight from the morning until the late afternoon to keep your house warm. You see those apartments behind? They are called “10,000 dollar apartments,” which is a very high price for the general population of Pyongyang.
Kim: That apartment you see is the most modern apartment you will find in Pyongyang. Price? I would say it is absurdly high. That apartment has the best security system and air conditioning and heating system in Pyongyang. How are they compared to fancy apartments in Seoul? I’d say well above those.
Photo 2: Temporary shelters
It is not a slum or ordinary housing for citizens
Park: No, it is not a slum or ordinary housing for citizens. Often the construction in Pyongyang takes around three years to get completed. These buildings are temporary housing for Korean People’s Army’s (KPA) construction troopers or Dolgyeokdae (drafted construction workers). The building at the same time can be used as a warehouse to store building materials, such as cement. Made with a couple of layers of steel plates (on the roof) and simple cement work, they are built to hold troopers for around one to two years.
Kim: It looks like housing for KPA. They would work alongside the riverbank of Taedong River and sleep inside these temporary buildings.
Photo 3: People in a bus
They are definitely not the visitors from the countryside
Park: My guess is that they are part of Dolgyeokdae. The second man from the behind of the bus looks like the officer in charge, and there is a woman worker in front of him. Dolgyeokdae’s system is similar to the military, but is made of drafted villagers who focus on construction work only. They are definitely not visitors from the countryside as almost all visitors would try to dress up properly. I guess the workers got all sweaty and hot after their hard labor.
Kim: Dolgyeokdae? Maybe, but I think they might have been drafted to take part in the mass rally held in Pyongyang. They may have arrived in Pyongyang from the countryside using that bus.
Photo 4: Pyongyang Tram System
The inside of it is like being inside an iron kiln
Park: Are you asking what is good about the Pyongyang tram system? It wastes a major part of the roads and stops very often during the winter. This doesn’t mean it gets any better in summer, as the heat often expands the rail making a bump on the track. Until someone cuts that part off or flattens it, no tram can move around. Of course, the whole system stops when one tram stops.
Kim: This tram is made during the Soviet-era… A similar version colored in red are still in Ukraine. North Korea imported those from the Soviet Union and surprisingly, they are still operating. The system is pathetic and gets even worse during the summer as it does not have any air-conditioning system built it. The inside of it is like being inside an iron kiln. (Editors note: some Pyongyang trams were imported from Prague).
Photo 5: Refueler or water tank
A vehicle like this would be dispatched to refill water
Park: Refueler? Yes, it can be, but what is contained inside the tank might not be gasoline. More than the times I saw refuelers, I saw similar vehicles which were filled with water. Pyongyang often suffers from a shortage of water or electricity. And if a particular part of the city suffers the shortage for more than a week, a vehicle like this would be dispatched to refill water into the water tank.
Kim: Yes there are many water tanks in Pyongyang. But I think this is a refueler. Too bad I can’t see the plate of it as it would’ve given me clues on who owns this vehicle.
Photo 6: North Korean police officers
Their hats changed around the year 2014
Park: They are not military officers. They are North Korean police officers. Their hats have changed since I left. The significant proportion of woman in the North Korean police forces are working on document management or communications.
Kim: Their hats changed around the year 2014. The new design followed the Chinese police forces’ style. There are many women in the North Korean police force.
Photo 7: North Korean guards carrying flower buckets
That is why there are flowers still found in Pyongyang, even during the winter
Park: All of the natural flowers are produced by the government, which orders its lower branches to raise them. Following Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il’s words – who wanted to decorate the North like a park – the government is planting flowers in many parts of Pyongyang. But instead of planting seeds and waiting for the flowers to bloom, they first raise the flowers elsewhere and plant the already bloomed ones to the ground. That is why there are flowers still found in Pyongyang even during the winter. After displaying them for a day or two, the workers would pluck them out from the ground and replace them with new ones as the old ones would start to wither away.
Photo 8: North Korean “7-eleven”
These stores are opened 24/7
Kim: In South Korean terms this would be the convenience store. While most of the shops in Pyongyang remain closed until the morning, these stores are opened 24/7. Who owns it? These are individual enterprises, and many people are making their living with stores like this.
Photo 9: Expensive cars
It is an untold secret that North Korean officials would dispatch a girl to provide sexual favors for foreign VIPs
Park: These are the cars that belong to the foreign ministry of North Korea. These are for diplomatic protocol purposes. During an international VIP’s visit to the country, these cars would be provided with a driver as well. It is an untold secret that the North Korean officials – which are thriving to achieve certain political goals with the help of the VIP – would dispatch a girl to provide sexual favors for the person at an isolated location.
(NK News could not corroborate this claim, though a regular visitor to the DPRK points out that these are diplomatic corps cars, not ministry cars.)
Photo 10: Construction site
We used to call it as “urban environment improvement plan”
Park: The shape of the apartment is quite old, so it has to be some extension or redesign work. No matter how much it gets decorated from the outside, the inside would remain almost unchanged from the past.
Kim: When I was in Pyongyang I worked in the construction business. From what I see, they are not building something new but are doing extension work. We used to call it an “urban environment improvement plan” and repainted the building in spring or fall.
Photo 11: Mickey Mouse in Pyongyang
There are many U.S. related products in Pyongyang
Park: This might come as a surprise to you, but there are many U.S. related products in Pyongyang. I have seen the Mickey Mouse book and even children’s movie (related to Mickey Mouse) televized in Pyongyang. There are three channels in North Korea. The first one is Mansudae Channel; the second one is Pyongyang Channel and the last is Kaesong Channel. The Mansudae Channel is televised only on Saturday and Sunday exclusively for the citizens of Pyongyang, and the channel showed children’s movie from Disney.
Photo 12: Kumsusan Palace of the Sun
Did you realize that the building does not have any windows?
Kim: The whole of the building is made of granite. The building is impenetrable even with missiles. Did you realize that the building does not have any windows? That is because the actual offices or the coffins of former leaders are not inside this building. They are all inside the bunker which is located behind from what you see in this picture. What you see, it is nothing but a big chunk of rock. All it has inside are hallways or staircases.
Featured Image: NK News